WASHINGTON / TUNIS–Senior US military officials are visiting countries in North Africa and the Gulf region to update their take on realities on the ground and help shape President Joe Biden’s vision for promoting US interests in the region.
Through talks with leaders and military counterparts in countries of the region they are seen as seeking to determine the political-military directions the US needs to follow to meet the challenges facing its military command in Africa (AFRICOM) and US Central Command (CENTCOM) forces in their areas of operations.
On Wednesday, Christopher Cavoli, US Army Europe and Africa Commander, and Major General Andrew Rohling, head of the Southern Europe Task Force, arrived in Tunisia, confirming the Biden administration’s interest in reviewing the stationing of US forces in North Africa, a strategic area linking the African continent to Europe from which the US can pursue its fight against terrorist activities in the Sahel and sub-Saharan countries.
In press statements, Rohling announced that in June Tunisia will host the largest part of the “African Lion” military exercises, which are held annually under US supervision.
“This year we’ll conduct African Lion with about 10,000 troops and about 20,000 from our partner nations. We’re going to conduct it in three countries: Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia,” he said.
These exercises include naval and air exercises, and also involve the United States, Britain, Egypt, Mauritania, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany and Spain.
Cavoli said the exercises “are going to give us the opportunity to work interoperability issues not just with key African partners but also with some of our European allies as well.”
He stressed that “Tunisia is an extremely important partner for the United States.”
In recent days, US Ambassador to Tunisia Donald Blome met with the head of Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, Rached Ghannouchi, and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, while President Kais Saied met with European Union ambassadors on Tuesday amid speculation that Tunisia could be the focus of growing US-French competition as an extension of competition between Paris and Washington in Libya and the Sahel region.
According to French security sources, Paris resents playing second fiddle to Washington on military and security matters since 2011, when the French were apparently caught off guard with the collapse of the regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Senior European diplomats who met with Saied said they conveyed to him their concern about Tunisia’s ongoing political standoff that has blocked the swearing-in of eleven members of government.
New Biden agenda
US experts say that the Biden administration could be amenable to boosting its support for Tunisia’s democratic transition as part of plans to support democracy and human rights in the region.
Tunisia faces a serious economic crisis that some experts fear could threaten its democratic transition. The economy contracted in 2020 by an unprecedented 8.8%.
There are concerns among a number of Arab analysts that the new Biden agenda of democracy and human rights promotion could lead to a revival of “Arab Spring” upheaval, widely seen as having brought chaos and violent strife and paved the way for the growth of jihadism in the region.
Analysts believe the visit of Cavoli and Rohling reflects a geographic scope of interest that goes beyond Tunisia. They see the Biden administration as planing to reexamine the positioning and tasks of US forces in southern Europe, North Africa and other regions, based on the participation of military forces in the formulation of new foreign policies that balance military and security concerns with diplomatic roles to promote American interests.
US relations with Tunisia, Morocco and to a lesser extent Algeria have gained special importance for Washington since Russia introduced advanced military equipment in Libya last year, including combat aircraft and air defence and radar systems, and secured strategic locations near oil wells.
Political instability and social upheaval could threaten the stability of the Maghreb region and intensify security threats there, especially as the situation in Libya is still precarious.
Former Tunisian Deputy Ambassador to Libya Bashir Jouini told The Arab Weekly that Tunisia could serve as a launch-pad for Washington to address the Libya situation and contribute to the final settlement there through the UN support mission in Libya, with a broader focus on containing North Africa’s socioeconomic and security problems and promoting the election of democratic systems.
The Pentagon has sent a specialised military training unit to North Africa last year. Elements of that unit, known as the Security Forces Assistance Brigade, will for the first time coordinate the multinational “African Lion” exercise this year.
Iran concerns linger
“Currently, we have Security Force Assistance elements in Djibouti, we have them in Tunisia, and we’re making reconnaissance in other countries across Africa,” Rohling said at the briefing.
Cavoli and Rohling’s visit to Tunisia came shortly after a tour by General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), in which he explored the Red Sea operations area, southern Arabia and Egypt to define a vision for future US strategies towards the conflict in Yemen and the risk of confrontation with Iran.
McKenzie met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday. After the meeting, the senior US military official expressed “keenness to continue the pace of coordination and consultation with Egypt regarding regional issues,” in a clear reference to Cairo’s strategic role within American plans, despite disagreements over human rights issues and Egypt’s acquisition of non-US armament, including the purchase of Sukhoi-35 Russian fighters.
McKenzie urged Iran Sunday not to undertake any “nefarious activities” if it wants to rebuild trust.
“I would think this would be a good time for everybody to behave soberly and cautiously, and see what happens,” McKenzie said.
“I do believe we will be prepared for any eventuality, however,” he added.
Analysts believe that McKenzie’s visit was aimed at gathering facts and factoring in recent security related developments on the ground to fine-tune the new administration’s strategies towards Iran and gauge Tehran’s threats to its neighbours.
Beyond advocating for human rights and democratic governance, Washington wants to show friend and foe that it is also attentive to security challenges, such as Iran’s designs in the Red Sea and its threats to the US presence in Iraq.
In North Africa, the US is projecting a commitment to the security and stability of a strategic region that is close to Europe and to the fight against extremism in the Maghreb, the Sahel and Sahara regions.